Jesus: A Religious Revolutionary by Marcus Borg

The first book I ever read by Marcus Borg, and the first book I ever read that saw Jesus through a modern lens was Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. Even as I was astounded and pleased by the message, I noticed the peaceful prose of the writer, flowing through the complex, illuminating the simple. Hidden under the message about a great spirit I could see another powerful mind and heart, the painter of the portrait, Marcus himself.

Marcus had already written one book on this subject Jesus a New Vision and went on to write several more. There was a sameness that pleased me in these books, and a bit of a bore also. New facts, same style, same Jesus. The thrill of the first encounter was gone. For me, he was filling in some blank spaces. Useful. I guess.

With Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, a new day dawns. The same simple style, so smooth that I gave up highlighting, newness merges into newness, the useful into the useful, in a steady stream. Everything, nearly, deserves the marker. Still, there are two thrusts to this book that put it well beyond everything else that he has written.

First, borrowing an approach that his old friend John Dominic Crossan used in his The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. , Marcus lays some groundwork, before beginning the story of Jesus. Much as saying that a presidential candidate is an idiot means one thing when said in a bunch of buddies on their third beer and another when shouted to an auditorium of the candidate’s devoted followers , Jesus’ words sound safe and secure if you thought he was wandering through a bucolic countryside discussing what to do with mustard seeds and unproductive fig trees.This was not a bucolic countryside, it was a war zone, (Rome was a brutal occupying nation) and the innocent stories and recondite comments were fierce pokes in the ribs.

The parable of the Good Samaritan seems an innocent enough story of a nice guy doing a good thing. But to Priests and Levites saying they would leave a dying man lying on the roadside were fighting words, and telling the everyday followers of the Torah that the rescuer was a Samaritan was taking away their hero’s role in all stories of Priests, Levites, and regular Jews and giving it to a mortal enemy. Jesus caused turmoil.

All of this with a Roman Legion parked a day’s march away to assure that there was no turmoil. The commanders of these Legions may have already heard of the man Jesus healed of demonic possession whose demons had a single name, “Legion,” and wondered not at all at what was inferred by that.

What was this about a Kingdom of God that was already hidden in Galilee and would grow like bread infected with leaven? Did that have something pernicious to do with a Kingdom of Rome which was already in charge?

“They” did get him eventually. The accusation was “He stirs up the people.” Jesus playing with matches looks innocent until you know gas fumes were already in the room. Marcus tells us about the fumes.

Others have done this. I think not as succinctly . I appreciated this presentation of the background of Jesus ministry. But, my standing ovation is reserved for his understanding of the heart of the Jesus ministry.

How come Jesus was so consistent in his message and in his actions? Most lay it to some grand plan he cooked up, (“that Jesus was a real smart guy”) and so they refer to the grand plan to explain why he spent time on the poor, or why he invited the tax collector (read here extortioner) to supper, or why yacking away merrily he headed for certain death in Jerusalem. According to Marcus it is all much simpler and more magnificent than the “one smart cookie” hypothesis.

There is no grand plan!

Marcus focuses on Jesus baptism by John in the Jordon, an event taken by most scholars as a somewhat embarrassing fictional miracle story. Marcus is not focused on the miraculous events within the event, the voice heard by everyone, the shimmering dove, thunder in clouds, all of which he accepts as the kind of glorious dust an affectionate history pours upon a great sage. Judaism has never lacked for sages. Why does this one rise above others?

Marcus says that at the moment of his baptism, Jesus experienced the compassionate God.

Before you dismiss this as idle tomfoolery, recognize that many people over the years, some who I know, have experienced the compassionate God. They tell similar stories, of quiet, unity, color, understanding, peace. (The first person who ever told me such a story was quite embarrassed, not that it occurred in the shower which it did, but that he experienced God and he was an atheist.)

They do not tell these stories often or everywhere because they think themselves alone and weak in the face of the Powers that bind us. Jesus did not. He rose from the water to preach God’s compassion to everyone, and act with God’s compassion to the needy, from the needy poor to the needy rich.

Why was the tax collector invited to supper? Jesus looked at him and instead of seeing a human bloodsucker he saw a lonely outcast. Why did he cure the centurion’s servant? He saw under the armor of the centurion a man whose heart was as compassionate as his own. Why did he allow a prostitute to anoint his feet? He understood the pain twisting her soul as she for profit betrayed herself. Why did he talk his way to Calvary? He had been touched by the compassionate God, and he himself was now compassionately immersed in the task of growing the kingdom.

How was it that Marcus came to this conclusion about an event minimized by most scholars? Marcus like many among us had the same experience. Several times. He says so. In this book he says so. He recognized this miracle of the heart in another one born from the silent waters of God’s own baptism.

Marcus died about a year ago and his friends in the Jesus seminar devoted a recent Quarterly to him. One of them praising his genuine humility told the story of hearing someone say to him “Dr. Borg, your books have changed my life.” Marcus replied with the pure truth, “I know. Many people have told me that.”

Read Jesus: The Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. Give Marcus a chance to change your life. He has a track record!